‘Sixty Six’ mixes past and present iconography
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Ann Arbor Film Festival
1960s pop art and Greek mythology collide in a dizzying explosion in Lewis Klahr’s collage film series “Sixty Six.” Paper cutouts of Lichtenstein-esque blondes scuttle through period magazine imagery, background prints and photographs of modernist LA architecture in dynamic stop motion. It’s the Silver Age of Greek mythology played out with the pulpy suspense and visual identity of the Silver Age of comic books.
Unlike some experimental films, Klahr’s work usually has a fairly defined, linear narrative, but an idiosyncratic method of reveal. He creates a scrapbook-like collage, physically overlaying flat cutouts and 3D found objects, then intercuts them with digital imagery, flashes of bold color and soapy sound bites that guide the storyline.
The twelve films in the series work together as chapters of a larger storyline, one which switches easily between ominous melodrama and playful irony. “Helen of T” features a time period appropriate jazz to follow a seductive blonde grappling with the loss of her youth and beauty. He then switches visual styles in “Mercury,” a short fight between comic book superheroes. Choppy cuts hover in on various small details — the point where a punch meets or a muscle straining — sparking motion to what was once a static physical image. Then there’s “Ambrosia,” a respite from graphic imagery, focusing on banquet table photographs alone to tell a story of the guests unseen. “Lethe,” inspired by the eponymous river flowing through the Underworld, draws revolvers and top hats from slick noir cinema for a bored housewife and mad doctor’s romp through death and rebirth.
Klahr says his films are from the “present tense, looking back”: that is, situating present iconography within the context of ideas that lead up to it. Cultural symbols may define an era, but aren’t exclusive to it. “Sixty Six” revives found imagery to uncover what relics of history have stuck and what they’ve become. After all, Greek myths were once narrative fodder for popular entertainment, just as the Pop Art movement drew from mass culture.
Still, calling “Sixty Six” a modern retelling of traditional archetypes doesn’t encompass the complexity of its scope. Klahr sources from an eclectic variety of well-known cultural markers, but disregards the chronological continuum that structures the ideas. He hints at how past ideas inform modern thought, but spends more time reversing it, finding fresh angles on things that have now wormed their way into collective consciousness. He meshes images together, then flings them in unexpected directions so all of these threads of perspective — Greek mythology, Sixties culture and the modern viewer — are at once recontextualized under his interpretation and stripped of context to create building blocks that the viewer can rearrange themselves.
He invites viewers to engage with the films within the context of their own lives, prefacing the screening by recommending that audiences unfamiliar with experimental film approach his series like listening to music. Just as song lyrics re-enter the mind during completely different situations than the original song, Klahr says because these cultural markers are already absorbed deeply into American popular culture, reassembling them is “about the way we personalize those images,” as Klahr said in the Q&A. With its delightfully distinctive collage style, “Sixty Six” has an unparalleled exuberance that truly does inspire audiences to make nostalgic imagery their own.